Tag Archives: Karatzaferis

That’s democracy

Poltergeist

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

A rambunctious protest and widespread criticism of the BBC were just some of the consequences of the British broadcaster’s decision last week to allow Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP) to take part in a televised debate.

Since Greece is a much more mature democracy, we do not experience such consternation. We put the leader and members of our own ultra-right wing nationalist party on TV almost on a daily basis, ask them soft questions, let them say what they like and nobody bats an eyelid. After all, that’s democracy.

Of course, the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), Giorgos Karatzaferis, would reject any accusation of extremism, racism or fascism, allegations that have been leveled against Griffin and BNP.

Over the years, Karatzaferis has diligently tried to erase his party’s uncomfortable past. He now presents himself as the nationalist with the friendly face, the caring populist. But all the airbrushing in the world will not cover up the skeletons in LAOS’s closet, such as the fact that one of the party’s most prominent MPs, Makis Voridis, had previously been the leader of the Hellenic Front (Elliniko Metopo), an ugly little anti-immigration, pro-death-penalty party that was officially affiliated with the BNP.

Voridis, one of several LAOS members with a dark past, also developed close ties with the leader of France’s far-right Front National (FN), Jean-Marie Le Pen. Shortly before the Hellenic Front was incorporated into LAOS, Voridis paraded Le Pen as a guest at his wedding.

Griffin and Karatzaferis can only dream of emulating the kind of success that saw Le Pen, the godfather of Europe’s far right, poll second in the French presidential elections of 2002. But Le Pen’s rise is absolutely relevant to the issue of how much coverage, if any, politicians like Griffin and Karatazferis should be given.

By Le Pen’s admission, “the hour that changed everything” for him was in 1984 when he took part in “L’heure de Verite,” a similar political program to “Question Time,” the show Griffin participated in last Thursday. The FN leader had been shunned by the media before then but following his appearance, the party increased its share of the vote in the subsequent European elections from 3.5 percent to 11 percent.

“Small fish become big so long as God gives them life,” said Le Pen. In 21st-century politics, this god is television. That’s why there’s been so much soul searching in Britain about whether Griffin should have been allowed to take part in a discussion involving mainstream politicians.

“When you put the BNP into the mainstream like that, they drag people onto their agenda,” said the Labour MP and first black female deputy to appear on “Question Time,” Diane Abbott. “The program has given Griffin unnecessary exposure, unnecessary credibility, and giving more credibility to a fascist party in the middle of a recession is a very dangerous thing.”

Abbot’s argument is powerful. Television gives politicians and parties a legitimacy they cannot get by handing out leaflets outside train stations or speaking at small gatherings in rural backwaters. If you’re on political talk shows with representatives of other parties then, in the eye of the viewer, you must be their equal. If you’re on TV, you’re part of the establishment. If you’re part of the establishment, then you can attract financing that can help you grow.

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So, if Griffin can draw all this from one appearance on the BBC, what kind of boost is Karatzaferis getting from being the darling of morning shows on Greek television? The LAOS leader worked out some time ago that TV can help him present his party as a legitimate voice in Greek politics. His regular appearances have made him a figure of fun for many but LAOS performances in this year’s European elections and general elections show that some viewers have been tuning in to his populist message.

Even the BNP claimed that more than 3,000 people joined the party immediately after Griffin’s appearance – although given that more than 8 million people watched the program, it’s not really a figure to boast about.

In fact, momentary popularity seems a small price to pay to uphold one of the principles that underpins our democracy: the freedom of speech. After all, the BNP won two seats in June’s European elections and not allowing an elected party fair representation would be dicing with accepted democratic principles. “The true gift to the extreme right is to give them the opportunity to claim that they are being gagged while allowing them to carry on operating and incubating in the shadows,” said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer weekly.

“Ultimately, the BBC was right about all this,” writes AA Gill in The Sunday Times. “It was a question of free speech and free speech is non-negotiable. It doesn’t come with caveats or committees or right-minded souls. It isn’t open only to reasonable people who hold a clubbable set of values. It can’t be taken from the mouths of those want to steal it from the mouths of others.

“Look at the list of the maligned dictators and murderous nutters who get to speak at the United Nations: Everyone has a right to a microphone.”

However, there’s a key difference between what British viewers saw last week and the Karatzaferis experience in Greece. Griffin was challenged by his fellow panelists, whose aim, as Tom Sutcliffe of The Independent put it “was to pry this limpet of strategic blandness from the rock and expose the unsightly muscle beneath.” Most importantly, though, Griffin had to face questions from the audience.

This produced the most telling moment of the night, when Griffin was confronted about the BNP’s policy of repatriation by a man born in Britain to Asian parents. “This is my country, where do you want me to go?” he asked, before suggesting that members of the audience collect money to buy Griffin a one-way ticket to the South Pole. “That’s a colorless landscape, it would suit you fine,” he told the BNP leader.

Greek politicians do not face this type of confrontation. Debates on Greek TV are usually sanitized coffee-house discussions, where the same old faces gather to spout the same old gibberish at the prompting of a very accommodating host. The presence of an audience that can show irreverence toward these inflated egos remains a foreign concept.

It’s here though, that the crux of the issue lies – although free speech should be cherished and defended, so should the right to challenge what is said. Monologues have no place in democracies and only play into the hands of those who direct their words at a specific audience.

Any publicity that Griffin gained from his appearance on “Question Time” was undone by his inability to rise to the challenges of the audience and his fellow panelists. “I have not been convicted of Holocaust denial,” was his response to a question about past comments that suggested the Holocaust was a myth. When asked about his 2000 meeting with David Duke, a Ku Klux Klan leader, Griffin responded by claiming that the KKK is “an almost totally nonviolent” organization.

The BNP leader’s floundering confirmed one of free speech’s most edifying features – although it provides you with the oxygen of publicity, it also gives you enough rope to choke yourself.

Griffin’s appearance was a two-fold victory for democracy because the freedom of speech was upheld but mostly because the principle that everyone, especially politicians, should be held directly accountable for what they say was immeasurably strengthened. Now, that’s democracy.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 30, 2009.

Democracy, the game show

weakestlink

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

“A celebration of democracy” – it’s a cliche, used to describe the voting process, that you’ll hear repeated on TV and radio throughout Sunday. But the truth is that voting has ceased to be a cause for celebration in this and many other countries for some time.

Too many voters enter polling booths not filled with the joy of someone about to pick the most suitable party but weighed down by the anxiety of choosing the one that’s least likely to disappoint. In an age when few politicians have convictions, let alone the courage of them, voters have become participants in democracy’s great game show – in the absence of talented candidates to vote in, they simply vote the failures out.

This rather subdued month-long campaign looks like it will culminate in exactly this manner. It has answered few of the questions the electorate had at the start and none of the parties has been able to present a convincing plan for rescuing and reviving the country’s economy, while a range of social issues have not featured at all.

The fewer the topics of discussion, the better for Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis and his party. He’s the game show contestant who’s finding life under the spotlight uncomfortable. Neither Karamanlis nor New Democracy is in the mood to answer difficult questions about their shortcomings over the last 5.5 years. But the government’s failure to engage with the electorate over the last month has strengthened the feeling that this administration’s time is up.

Karamanlis’s decision to call snap elections only made sense if it allowed New Democracy to get a head start on PASOK but the conservative party’s machinery creaked onto the campaign trail and was soon lagging behind the Socialists who set the agenda with their plan for their first 100 days in government. Karamanlis gambled on a snap election, hoping it would reinvigorate his party and renew people’s faith in his government but he forgot to give people some new ideas to believe in. “More of the same” is not a prize anyone wants to claim.

As a result, PASOK leader George Papandreou has limited himself to the role of the contestant who takes as few risks as possible and waits for his opponent to slip up. But this prompts the question: is he really limiting himself or are these actually his limits?

Doubt about Papandreou’s leadership is just one of the reasons that PASOK goes into Sunday’s voting sweating on whether it will get a clear parliamentary majority. Another is that although plenty of people are willing to believe the Socialists can do a better job in a number of areas, such as environmental and immigration policy, not so many have faith in their plans for the economy.

Athens PlusPASOK’s intention to increase public spending on wages and pensions still does not add up. Papandreou says he’ll find the money from uncollected taxes and tax dodgers. But these taxes have been uncollected for years and PASOK would have to conduct some serious restructuring of the tax collection system to gather them. This is a long-term project. Papandreou doesn’t have that sort of time. So, the question remains – where will he get the money?

If you ask Communist Party (KKE) leader Aleka Papariga, she’ll tell you the working classes will end up footing the bill. In the current economic climate, it’s a response that resonates with quite a few people and KKE is likely to increase it’s share of the vote, cementing it’s role as a strong voice in opposition but nothing more.

Papariga is the contestant who’s good with the questions about history but no so comfortable with the one involving numbers. The credibility gap in her and KKE’s positions means that the party will only ever attract true believers and those that want to poke ND and PASOK in the eye.

The Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA), however, has much more riding on this election. Its leader, Alexis Tsipras, has been the young challenger who too often blurted out the answers before engaging his brain. It has cost him and the leftist party points, so SYRIZA goes into Sunday hoping for enough support (more than 3 percent) to get into Parliament.

Provided it achieves this, it could even be a coalition partner for PASOK if the Socialists fail to get a parliamentary majority. Perhaps that’s why Tsipras has been more prudent in recent weeks, thinking things through before putting his hand on the buzzer.

One leader perfectly cut out for the game show format is the leader of the Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS) Giorgos Karatzaferis. But even this master of the camera seems to have lost his touch during this campaign. Lacking his usual car salesman slickness in the TV debates and not knowing whether to attack PASOK because it is likely to be the next government or New Democracy because that’s where most of his voters come from, Karatzaferis has become trapped in his own nationalist-populist rhetoric.

The Ecologist Greens leader, Nikos Chrysogelos, has put in a more convincing performance, prompting many to cheer him on from the sidelines. Whether this will transfer into votes on election day remains doubtful. In game show parlance, the Ecologist Greens are the appealing mystery prize that many people will avoid, fearing it will turn out to be a cheap toaster rather than a holiday for two in Barbados.

Although they still lack slickness, the Ecogreens have admirably tried to state their case during this campaign, often having to avoid being dragged down blind alleys where journalists wait to ambush them with questions about foreign policy and other issues that are clearly not their priority.

To get into Parliament, they’ll have to virtually triple their support from the 2007 general election. It would be a historic achievement that could lead to them being a coalition partner for either of the two big parties.

It would perhaps be the biggest prize available to a Greek electorate that has to wrestle with some testing choices on Sunday. There is little you can say to someone faced with such dilemmas other than what you’d say to anyone about to take part in a game show: Good luck.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on October 1, 2009